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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Nikon D50: An Unreview

Thursday, September 13, 2007

About a year ago, when I first got my Nikon D50, I promised to post a review once I had experienced using it. Well, so busy was I taking photos, that this has got put off until now. Having said that, I have realised there is not much point me posting a review, since others have got there before me and done so in more detail than I could hope to reproduce. Digital Photography Review have prodded, probed and tested the technical quality of the camera in their typically rigorous way, and the camera came out trumps. Nuff said.

So rather than a review, an unreview. Let's start with the premise that I, like most other people, love this camera. For my uses, it is nearly faultless. But not quite. In my unreview, then, here are the five things I dislike about the D50:
  1. There is no LCD backlight. Although the eyepiece information gives shutter speed and aperture, it does not display ISO, metering pattern, or white balance setting. For complex night time shots (such as this one), a backlight on the top LCD display would be of great benefit.
  2. Probably my most common error when using the camera is that I forget to change the ISO with each new shoot. If I go from shooting at night at 1600 to shooting during the day (which might require 200), I end up with noisy pictures in the latter. Of course, this is not so much a fault with the camera as with my bad practices: I need to get into the habit of resetting all my manual options every time I finish a shoot. Nevertheless, for an entry-level DSLR a warning in the viewfinder when the ISO is set too high would be a help. Additionally - though not necessarily a function you would expect from a camera in this price bracket - an ISO priority mode would not go amiss.
  3. As far as the quality of the photographs goes, when shooting in RAW at low ISOs it's difficult to see how the quality might be improved (given that megapixels matter little when publishing photos primarily to the web, as I do). However, one consistent problem (and one that is by no means unique to the D50 or to Nikon's in general but is common across many cameras) is that the white balance can be off when under tricky lighting conditions, such as incandescent bulbs or scenes with a large bias to one colour. If shooting in RAW, this can usually be rectified; these shots of the cathedral, for example, were way off in the original and required post-processing to match the true colour of the stone. However, the photos I shot at my sister's graduation were more problematic. Here, the people were standing in the sunlight against a shaded green backdrop of shrubs and trees. Because of the green bias in the scene, the skin tones came out wrong and, skin being notoriously difficult to colour in any circumstances, trying to process these to match the tones on the portraits with the colour of the background proved very difficult. Of course I could/should have manually set the white balance for the skin tones beforehand, or used white balance bracketing. Nevertheless, for a casual user, such advanced features might be difficult to use, and you would rely instead on the automatic functions of the camera, which are not quite perfect and foolproof.
  4. Another technical issue is not with the camera body, but with the standard kit lens, the 18-55mm DX. For my relatively undiscerning eyes, it is quite difficult to tell how the quality of the image with this lens might be improved: it is sharp at either end of the focal range, provides good colour rendition, and is relatively fast with its 3.5 aperture. The autofocus is relatively responsive. However, the manual focus is very slack. For macro work, if you need to focus manually and are pointing the camera down the focus ring will slide around. It lacks the solid feel of an older, heavier, manual lens, such as the Vivitar 210mm I have borrowed before.
  5. Finally, as is the problem with all technological toys, I want more. An ISO that runs from 100 to 3200. Ten or more megapixels. A burst mode that runs to more than 4 shots when in RAW mode.
But is this lust enough to prompt me to upgrade? At some point in the future, and if I continue to enjoy my photography, then I would. As second-hand Nikon D80s or D1xs appear on Ebay, the temptation would probably be too great to resist. But I have no idea how much these cost at the moment, because I have not bothered to look. When I was deciding which camera to buy, I spent hours browsing the second-hand market and reading reviews. Apart from questing for a longer lens, I have not visited Ebay since I got the D50. This has to be a good sign.

So how, then, has my photography changed through the use of this camera? Oddly, in spite of all the high-tech wizardry, the feature that has made the greatest difference to my photography is also the most mundane component: the battery. With a battery life that runs to several thousand images, as opposed to less than 100 for my Coolpix 2100, I am able to pick up my camera bag and go without any preparation. I go to town, I take my bag. From my computer desk I see the evening light start to change, I grab the camera and run. Because I do not need to worry about whether the camera is ready or not (and when the battery does start to go the indicator gives you about 100 shots of leeway to get to a power point), I can shoot on impulse. Spontaneous images such as this sunset, or this frost, would not have been possible without having the camera always by my side.

And because of the fact that I now use the camera several times a week, familiarity has bred an understanding of shutter speeds, apertures, sensitivities, focal lengths and so on, understanding that I could not have gained with pleasure from a textbook, or without a great expense of film through a conventional SLR.

Of course, knowledge is worthless without its application, and the camera is the tool that gets done the job of what starts with the artistic, seeing eye. Are there images that I would not have shot before, because I had neither the experience gained from using a digital camera, nor the functions of an SLR as opposed to my previous compacts? Looking at the last 100 images that I have posted to The Pequod, the answer is a qualified "yes". Of these, about a quarter would have been impossible without advanced equipment, reliant as they are on my ability to control aperture or shutter speed. A further 25 or so were quite experimental shots, which I would probably not have expended film on. This leaves about half the photographs reliant not at all on the quality of the camera but the intrinsic quality of the original scene. But as I admitted in a post very early in my photographic career, great cameras play a minute, technical part in great photographs. Great photographers, on the other hand, always make great images. It's just that when the two work together, the results can be spectacular, and I have more confidence that one day I (though not a great photographer) will produce the idealised, unrealisable perfect shot with this camera, than with any other.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:24 am


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